The “Gift of Lightness”
Natalie Jacobson McCracken, former Bostonia editor in chief, celebrated the good things
Natalie Jacobson McCracken, former editor in chief of Bostonia magazine, died on November 25, 2018. She was 83. Former editor Taylor McNeil worked for McCracken for many years and wrote the following tribute.
Shortly after I started working for Natalie Jacobson McCracken, in 1994, she became editor in chief of Boston University’s alumni and development publications, including Bostonia. She not only elevated the alumni magazine, then a quarterly, and directed the transformation of school and college newsletters into quality magazines, she also saw her role as ambassador to the hundreds of thousands of alumni. And for those of us who worked for her, she wasn’t just our boss, she was our friend.
“I have been so sad these last couple of days,” Bari Walsh, editor of Bostonia in 2007–2008, wrote to a group of Natalie’s friends shortly after she died. “But what I know is that Natalie would have not had much patience with that. The biggest gift she left for me is the gift of lightness. You celebrate good things, and you don’t linger in bad things. You always make time for snacks, sweets, conversations, and people you love. You look for the good things. It doesn’t mean that you are some kind of a Pollyanna, with blinders on. You’re actually more courageous when you do that.”
Natalie was born on February 22, 1935, the elder (by three minutes) of twin girls, and grew up in Valley Junction, what she called a “whistle-stop town” in West Des Moines, Iowa. She attended Northwestern and Drake University, where she met Samuel McCracken. They moved east as Natalie earned an MA in theater at Columbia, while Sam got his in English at the University of Connecticut. They married in 1959.
Natalie came to BU along with Sam in 1974, when he became an assistant to President John Silber (Hon.’95). She taught speech and theater at Boston State College—later part of UMass Boston—reveling in coaching students in public speaking, before taking on editorial roles at BU for internal and alumni audiences. She was named editor at large of Bostonia in 2006 and retired from the University in 2011.
I worked with Natalie for a dozen years, and appreciated her skills as an exacting editor. When copy ran long, and needed to be trimmed to fit on a page, she would surgically eliminate a word here, a phrase there—and somehow made the piece better. More than that, she taught me and all those who worked with her lessons about life, not in word but in deeds.
“I learned a good deal from Natalie, professionally and personally: she had a vast tolerance, was not judgmental or critical, was pretty unflappable, and never held a grudge,” says Mary Cohen, Bostonia’s longtime copy editor.
“When presented with a problem, Natalie wasted no emotion on the injustice or unreasonableness of it,” says Jean Keith, who worked with her for 16 years. “She had a keen ability to assess a predicament and figure out the most practical way to handle it. She was a beloved mentor and friend, an unforgettable presence in my life. I feel chosen to have had Natalie in my life for so many years, and miss her dearly.”
Natalie had been on and off the BU Charles River Campus for decades, reporting stories, going to meetings, and attending many official functions along with Sam—she was a fixture at the University. “Wherever she went, buildings and grounds guys would wave at her, food services wait staff would greet her, and an assortment of staff, administrators, faculty, department chairs, deans, and vice presidents were on a first-name basis with her,” Keith says.
The BU Women’s Guild was one of Natalie’s great passions. “Over decades, she devoted her energy to help the guild flourish, becoming a guild president, editing invitation copy for its events, and chairing its scholarship committee, which annually awarded funds to BU graduate women 30 and over to assist them in fulfilling their educational goals,” says Keith, herself a one-time Guild president. “She helped develop the Florence Engels Randall Writing Prizes, and above all, she loved reading the student submissions and meeting the prize winners.”
Natalie was not one for pretense. One day while we were talking in her office, she let slip that she had earned a PhD while living in Madison, Wis., in the early sixties. You can find her thesis about English mystery and miracle plays, “Medieval Mysteries for Modern Production,” in the University of Wisconsin library. But she scoffed at anyone who found out about her degree and tried to call her “Doctor McCracken.”
Birthdays were important; in the office, we celebrated everyone’s birthday with, at the least, a card that we all signed, if not a celebratory cake. Natalie’s major birthdays themselves became celebrations: when she turned 60, shortly after I arrived, a large crowd gathered at a Thai restaurant on Comm Ave, with folks coming from all over BU. When she turned 70—though heaven knows, no years were mentioned—the gathering was larger, at One Silber Way. It was a festive gathering. Natalie loved children. Mine were young at the time, and were made to feel as special guests at her party.
After I left BU in 2007, I kept in touch with Natalie. Over the next 11 years, we had lunch or dinner every couple of months. Her favorite restaurant was one she had never been to before; her favorite dish, one she’d never had. The last couple of years, we had been working our way through the restaurants of Arlington Center, near where I live. Indian, Korean, Mexican, Thai, Japanese: I have memories of her in all those places.
On October 20, 2018, Natalie and I met at Toraya, a small Japanese restaurant in Arlington. We got the last table, as it was filling up fast. We lingered, talking about her plans to go to Austin to see her daughter and grandkids, and about books we were reading. It was dark out as we left. I gave her a hug goodbye, and we agreed we’d try a new Italian restaurant for our next outing. Less than two weeks later, she had a cerebral hemorrhage, slipped into a coma, and died peacefully at home. She leaves a son, Harry McCracken (CAS’86), and a daughter, Elizabeth McCracken (CAS’88, GRS’88).